Maduro Fears “Two Corinas” in Elections, Machado & Yoris

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado (left) embraces historian Corina Yoris, after presenting her as the opposition candidate. Photo: EFE/Rayner Peña R.

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – In Venezuela, after a wave of repression against the leaders of the Vente Venezuela Party led by Maria Corina Machado, the winner of the opposition primary with more than 90% of the vote, the National Electoral Council (CNE) controlled by Nicolas Maduro vetoed Machado’s registration as the opposition candidate.

Then on March 22, with the consensus of the Unity Platform of political parties, Maria Corina Machado announced the designation of Corina Yoris, a university professor, philosopher, 80 years old, as the opposition candidate, replacing Machado.

This weekend, the Maduro regime also vetoed the registration of Yoris by de facto means, without providing any justification other than the fear of competing with a candidate who has the support of 80% of the electorate, endorsed by Machado against Maduro.

The deadline for Corina Yoris’s registration expires on March 25. To evaluate the latest news from Venezuela amid uncertainty, we spoke in Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL with journalists Luz Mely Reyes, director of the digital media Efecto Cocuyo, and with the columnist Boris Muñoz, columnist for the newspaper El País, and former Opinion director of The New York Times in Spanish.

We asked them about the electoral scenarios in Venezuela, after the nomination of Corina Yoris, and whether Maduro and his Venezuelan Socialist Party will allow a competitive election on July 28, in which it would clearly lose power, or if it will annul political competition as Daniel Ortega did in Nicaragua in 2021.

“They have said that they will not give up power,” Reyes recalled, “it is an election without guarantees, of course, we already know that it is not competitive.” However, with a repetition of Maduro, with the traps they lay, “people already know that an economic improvement in the country is unsustainable with Maduro in power.”

For his part, Muñoz appealed to the support of the international community: “the lifting of sanctions —I am not a lawyer of sanctions—, but I believe that stabilizing this Government is a bad recipe and the problems it generates at the regional level are so great that it is necessary to press for a change. This is the moment to do it, the window is three months, not much further.”

There are only 24 hours left for the deadline for the registration of presidential candidates. And although last Friday Maria Corina Machado, who was vetoed by the regime, and the opposition, nominated academic Corina Yoris as the candidate, the Electoral Council has not allowed her to register. What is happening in Maduro’s party? Is there a decision to veto Corina Yoris or to disqualify the party in which she is registering?

Luz Mely Reyes: It is not known exactly, because that is a black box, what may be happening in [the governing] Chavismo. But what is presumed, from the facts, is that there is an intention for Professor Corina Yoris, who was proposed by Maria Corina Machado and accepted by the groups that are in the Unity Platform —which brings together a majority of opposition political parties in Venezuela—, it seems that the decision of the National Electoral Council is not to allow her to run.

Until March 22, Corina Yoris was unknown in the Venezuelan political world. Why is her nomination causing this political tremor in Chavismo? Would it be a veto not only against her, but against the opposition she is representing?

Boris Muñoz: The Government makes a very simple calculation by not allowing Yoris to register, and that is that she starts with a very concrete advantage: 2.6 million votes that will be transferred to her from Maria Corina Machado. And there is no doubt that her candidacy would have great support and would represent a greater challenge for Maduro than he has received in his eleven years in power.

I doubt they will let her register in the remaining time. And I also understand —it was commented on Saturday by a person close to the opposition— that the Government is evaluating names of candidates that it would allow to register. So, let’s see what happens in the coming hours that are so crucial, which probably is being decided at this moment.

I presume that the Unity Platform has to weave very finely, at this moment, in its support, to whom it will be able to give it because it has to ensure that that person is loyal to the platform and loyal to democracy. There is a group of candidates that have been allowed to register, who are named as opposition without having demonstrated a consistent activity with the most belligerent opposition that has led the struggle of the last 25 years.

And those candidates who registered, who are not Nicolas Maduro, and are not properly opposition leaders, do they reflect a division in the opposition, or are they regime collaborators?

Luz Mely Reyes: These people who have registered do not belong to the parties of the Unity Platform. Supposedly they represented some different option, an opposition that self-defines as less radical. However, they failed to reach any agreement to have a single candidacy among them, which indicates that, as a group, they do not act in a unified manner and, moreover, the interest is probably not even to win an election because they know they do not have the numbers, but rather there may be other interests. They are those who have bought into the theory of conceding rights and lowering the bar of negotiations with the Government, since they were allowed to run.

Boris Muñoz: The expectation of Venezuelans at this moment —and I believe that explains the success of María Corina Machado as an opposition candidate— is change. None of these other candidates represents a change, not radical, but a possible change. They are not viable to win a presidency. That is the dilemma facing the Unity Platform, which represents the possibility of change, even beyond the slogan “until the end” that has really motivated a lot of political mobilization. The possibility of a change that could be, even, in positive terms for the ruling coalition, that could open a negotiation and the path to reconciliation with Chavismo.

Eventually, if the scenario is given, and one of these candidates receives the support of the Unity Platform, is still a very distant assumption as they are not credible and the other condition that a candidate needs is to be loyal to democracy. To be credible, a candidate must have an impeccable credential in terms of commitment to change, to that great promise.

Luz Mely Reyes: What happened on October 22, 2023, with the opposition primary not only showed a great desire for change but also that María Corina Machado won with over 90%. It was a very clear message to the parties themselves that are part of that Unity Platform. That is also one of the challenges, because in any case, the candidate of democracy also requires articulation with the organized parties in order to have all the electoral infrastructure, so that there are people at each polling station, witnesses who, in the event that the election is held on July 28, can testify and defend the vote at that time.

How do you assess the reaction of the international community, of the electoral observers, of the witnesses of the Barbados Agreement, or of the United States government and those of Latin America? First, in the face of the veto against María Corina Machado and now that the new opposition candidate is also being prevented from registering.

Boris Muñoz: I see it has been quite tepid. This could be for diplomatic reasons, not to deviate from the [Barbados] agreement line, especially those who protected that negotiation. I saw that through one of the spokespersons of the Biden Administration said they are waiting for a scenario favorable to maintaining the lifting of sanctions that benefits the Government so much. Of course, that is a card they have reserved there.

But there is a very important role that Latin American Governments must play. Someone has criticized Lula’s performance very strongly because he is legitimizing the dictatorship by not calling it by that name. Norway has been playing in the background of the negotiation in a very honorable way, almost. So, let’s see what happens in these days. It is premature to judge what other countries are doing. I imagine there is much behind the scenes, and Spain also plays an important role here.

Can international pressure make Maduro respect the Barbados agreements? Or, for example, if the United States reinstates economic sanctions, can it be used by Maduro as a pretext to even cancel the elections?

Luz Mely Reyes: The National Electoral Council —which responds to the Venezuelan Executive— issued invitations to international observers from the Carter Center, the European Union, and also the UN. Despite the fact that the Government is making it increasingly difficult for them to accept going to observe the election in Venezuela. From the moment the disqualification against Maria Corina Machado is ratified, the process does not enjoy an element of electoral integrity, but they are determined to go and observe that electoral process.

This is important because the Maduro government always tries to pressure those who have decided to be on the electoral path to give up that intention. However, I don’t think they are succeeding. Rather, it is confirming the fears that existed, but at the same time, it is also finding a strong will from the democratic parties to participate in the electoral process, even from Maria Corina Machado, whom some expected to call for abstention, and yet she has been able to remain firm on the electoral path. The process started, of course, with several weak points, however, it is so far the only window available to try to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Venezuelan journalists Luz Mely Reyes and Boris Muñoz

Boris Muñoz: I see a fairly complicated scenario because there are no strong negotiation cards with the Government at the moment. The United States had a strong card in Alex Saab (Maduro’s front man) and they handed him over a bit hastily. So, losing that card leaves very few concrete incentives to bring Maduro to a negotiation to fulfill the Barbados agreements. The Government is calculating a scenario of absolute control over the electoral process and pressuring the Unity Platform to go for a failed choice, which is abstention, and then being able to claim that rhetorical game that has been very successful for Chavismo, which is to say that the opposition is antidemocratic.

But it is obvious that Maduro is also very exposed. He lacks credibility in any sense, and that is why we have seen a strong reinforcement in recent months of Venezuela’s geopolitical alignment with Russia, Iran, and China. They are preparing for a world with sanctions and seeking the alliances that will allow them a certain margin to continue generating income from oil sales.

In other words, Maduro’s government is preparing for that scenario. Are they preparing for an election that will be questioned by different international sectors, for not conducting a truly competitive vote?

Boris Muñoz: Yes, they are eliminating competitiveness. That is why, when Maduro saw this lady Corina Yoris with a very warm reception from the people in Venezuela, he made the calculation, that she starts with two million+ votes, at the moment of his weakest political position, with an 80% disapproval. At the same time [he sees] Maria Corina with that 80% support, that is too dangerous for the Government. That is why they are closing the doors to a moderately competitive and credible election.

Luz Mely Reyes: They have said they will not give up power. They understand that there is a scenario in which they may lose, and I also think they are preparing so that if that were the case, in this attempt to push the Unity Platform to have a candidate they call “acceptable,” partly also to ensure what could be in case they lose. A transition that could guarantee that at least the leadership is not punished with jail and their surroundings end up being protected.

There is another possibility that must be taken into account. Let’s remember that the Government held a referendum on the Essequibo (territory in dispute with Guyana) and if something is known about the actions of Chavismo, it is that they can always play two cards in advance. And they did that referendum for a reason. That’s why sometimes I express my doubt that there will actually be elections on July 28, because there are still cards to play.

It is an election without guarantees. Of course, we already know that it is not competitive, that it does not have electoral integrity, that it would end in a repetition of Maduro, but that would open a scenario that has to do with the fact that, regardless of whether they win with the traps they set, people already know that an economic improvement in the country is unsustainable with Maduro in power. We were in basement five, in recent years we moved up to basement three. What I perceive is that people do not want to go back to that basement five. And this we have seen with interviews with grassroots chavistas; it is known that an economic improvement is not sustainable with Maduro in power because it exposes the country to sanctions again. It exposes the country to certain income being closed off and to making decisions that would have to open the economy.

If Maduro has an 80% rejection rate, he has a very powerful incentive to avoid exposing himself in a competitive election. It’s very similar to the scenario that occurred in Nicaragua in 2021, when Daniel Ortega decided, through another route, to eliminate political competition and jailed all presidential precandidates. In this case, Maduro isn’t imprisoning the candidates, but he’s disqualifying them all.

Boris Muñoz: Yes, but he is imprisoning those around them, the people who support the candidates. And that suggests that he is moving towards Daniel Ortega’s path. Of course, nothing is the same. The form may be different from what happened in Nicaragua. But if we look at what happened this week with Maria Corina Machado’s political team, we understand that he is negotiating, taking hostages, making decisions very costly for the Unity Platform.

On the other hand, I agree with Luz Mely, they are operating on several levels and even on the electoral level, having pointed out that date in mid-year for the election, indicates that they calculated that there would be six months to negotiate the transition before handing over power in early 2025. So, it means that they are also evaluating various scenarios and have not completely decided on one yet. But what we have seen with the closure of the CNE to Corina Yoris’s registration indicates that they will not accept a candidate who represents the transfer of Maria Corina Machado’s popularity.

So, we are heading towards an election that will be internationally and nationally questioned. Those six months afterwards that you mentioned, does the opposition have a democratic transition program, a proposal, even if Maduro steals the election on July 28?

Luz Mely Reyes: I think that’s one of the key points because although many groups in Venezuela have been activated to work on what a transition process would be like, I have the impression, from conversations I’ve had with different leaders, that they found it very difficult to believe that there was a possibility of winning an election. That is, if we go back a little over a year ago, it was practically impossible to believe that a democratic opposition candidacy could have a chance of winning. So, they were concentrating on the electoral process itself, as fulfilling a formality and then focusing on 2025, when there are also elections in Venezuela, and they took for granted that Maduro would be there for another six years.

Now, with the numbers in the polls, with all these reactions that are being generated from chavismo and that are evidencing what has been said, nationally and internationally, now it is up to this democratic opposition to discuss how to design transition scenarios.

Some have talked about “swallowing many frogs,” and others have said that “those frogs would be poisoned.” We all know that transitional processes involve transitional justice. However, in Venezuela, there is an investigation in the International Criminal Court for human rights violations and crimes against humanity. So, until when will those frogs have to be swallowed? That is one of the questions that has not yet been answered.

How close or far away is Venezuela today, in this uncertainty of the elections on July 28, from being able to approach a democratic transition?

Boris Muñoz: It is in the interest of both political camps to break the catastrophic deadlock that has existed in the last five or six years and that no force is able to obliterate the other completely. And one characteristic of Venezuela, unlike other countries, especially when compared to Cuba, is that Venezuelans have not thrown in the towel in their energy for change, in their ability to react to the government, and have always sought a democratic route.

We are closer than we thought a year ago, at a moment of total despair. But that path is still not open; it is a trail that needs to be trodden, and I think that’s where the international pressure from governments like the United States, Brazil, Colombia, and others in Latin America must try to push the government to stay on the democratic path and to open up the game a little more.

From the opposition’s side, the performance this time has been very positive, and the main role of Maria Corina, which has been to keep the ball in play, has been fulfilled in a very complete way. So, much of the scenario that will be built from now on is in the hands of the government. Not so much the opposition unless this situation closes so much that it triggers a wave of protests. I see it difficult to articulate a street movement at this time, but it should not be ruled out.

Luz Mely Reyes: I think we are closer to that possibility; that window remains open. Obviously, everything to come is very delicate. I agree with Boris in the sense that Machado first managed to reactivate the muscle of hope, but also the democratic memory of Venezuelans because another big difference with other processes is that Venezuela experienced 40 years of democracy, and there was a lot of sowing, and there has been a kind of resistance. That social fabric that has been so attacked finds new forms of resistance, perhaps not in such an articulated way, but it is always expressing itself.

Chavismo is making mistakes because it does not end up understanding why there is such strong resistance among Venezuelans to being subjected to repression and to all this encirclement and closure of civic spaces. That is something that they will not understand because those who are currently in the upper echelons are not democrats.

That response from Venezuelan society itself is what they are facing a lot, beyond the figure of Maria Corina Machado. Today we could see it with the support that immediately aroused the figure of Professor Corina Yoris, but I am very sure that if they choose a third candidacy and a fourth candidacy, that will add more support.

Boris Muñoz: I just want to make a small footnote about the international scene. I think it is also being understood internationally that Maduro and chavismo belong to an undemocratic camp, countries like Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua. I think that democratic countries must understand that stabilizing the Maduro government through the lifting of sanctions —I am not a lawyer for sanctions, but I think stabilizing this government— is a bad recipe, and the problems that this government generates regionally are so great that it is necessary to push for a change. This is the time to do it; the window is three months, not much beyond that.

Read more from Nicaragua and Cuba here on Havana Times.